The Age of the Stoic Football Coach May Be Passing, to Replaced by a Legion of Jim Harbaughs

By Johnny Ginter on March 24, 2017 at 10:20 am
Jim Harbaugh delivers a press conference

Once upon a time, Mike Leach was an extreme oddity. He would wax poetic about pirates while gameplanning 60 passes per game and then losing and retrieving his hat in Honolulu and then giving dating advice and more dating advice and doing the weather report in Lubbock and then getting fired after allegedly locking Craig James' kid in a barn or something and then spending his days wandering around southern Florida and fishing before booking it to Washington and doing it all over again. Also he's a lawyer.

The point is that Mike Leach holds no secrets from us. Every aspect of his personality has been dissected and scrutinized for years, but because he's a completely bonkers human being, you can get stuff like this...

...and not really ever tire of it.

For a long time I viewed Leach as an anachronism, and that's why I liked the dude. While I ironically enjoyed Jim Tressel's fervent desire to rid himself of all human emotion, especially when conducting press conferences, once I became a regular writer for Eleven Warriors I finally understood how difficult he could be to make into a story (until he wasn't, for equally frustrating reasons). Texas Tech beat writers had no such problem, because Leach supplied them with an endless parade of copy and topics and the mythology of a team on the rise rather than a team trying to stay at the top.

But looking across the college football landscape, I saw a lot more Jim Tressels than Mike Leaches. Sure, you'd have the occasional Les Miles here and there, but in sum it seemed like a bunch of guys saying nothing to avoid losing their jobs, or, alternatively, to avoid being asked questions about how they became so awesome. It isn't that I found their recalcitrance unseemly per se, it's more that guys who are more open about who they are as human beings seem more trustworthy as a head coach.

Here's a picture of Bill Belichick.

Bill Belichick

That's him chilling at Ohio State's pro day, probably in between hanging out with his bro Urban Meyer and evaluating Ohio State players for both their ability to command small contracts while also making the Pro Bowl every other year, somehow.

Noted control freaks Urban Meyer and BIll Belichick are best buds, naturally:

When Meyer was in the early days of his time at Florida, the phone rang and Belichick was on the other end. Meyer, not believing it, said, “Yeah, this is Pete Rose.” Once Meyer realized he actually was talking to the three-time Super Bowl winning head coach, the two coordinated a visit to discuss football philosophy.

Belichick wanted to talk X’s and O’s with Meyer, who was the author of a still foreign and mysterious offense at the time. Meyer also didn’t own a national championship, so he picked Belichick’s brain on how to create a winning culture through a strong locker room. Four years later, Meyer owned two national titles.

Maybe not surprising is that Belichick's only closer friend in college football is possibly Nick Saban, and the three of them make up a group of possibly the most successful head coaches in any sport ever. They are all meticulous planners, slaves to the idea that you can and must control every aspect of your program at all times, including the branding and message that is being presented by the most visible person related to said program.

Still, Meyer and Belichick and Saban are outliers. They've been able to prove their bonafides over the course of a decade or more, and can pretty much do whatever the hell they want. If Meyer wants to blow off a media obligation in favor of staring angrily at a 2019 recruiting board, no one is going to say boo about it.

But part of me wonders how desireable that kind of stoicism is anymore, at least for coaches just starting out in their careers. When Urban Meyer got his first head coaching job in the early 2000s, the Earle Bruce/Woody Hayes model of coaching was still untouched by #teens on social media. As it's turned out, larger-than-life figures like Spurrier were ahead of the game, and now we're entering the era of Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh has done two things pretty well in his first few years as Michigan's head coach; one, he's racked up a lot of victories in a relatively short time, and two, he's been reliably weird and open about his weirdness.

And it works, because Harbaugh is a crazy person who is a genuine nutcase that chugs milk and cosplays as Woody Hayes. That weirdness is part of the Jim Harbaugh package, and people love it. Remember that a decade ago Rich Rodriguez was considered somehow too exotic for the blue-hairs Up North. Now, any coach that follows Harbaugh will have not just an expectation of success, but an expectation of a personality that is, at least on the face of it, open and accessible to the public.

That's not to imply that Harbaugh is secretive in his own way, and none of this is to impugn Urban Meyer. He's an incredible coach that has elevated Ohio State's profile even beyond what Jim Tressel could ever have dreamed. But what we know about his thoughts about life, love, or pirates is mostly confined to really random asides about Sister Hazel and the occasional photobomb of a friend on a boat in Florida.

That kind of fog around his life works for Meyer, and most college football coaches of his generation. But for the coaches who come next, who are trying to make an impact and make a name for themselves, the template isn't going to be Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, it's going to be guys like Mike Leach, Steve Spurrier, and yeah, Jim Harbaugh.

It's a kind of calculated openness that allows for the coach to at least appear human to the media that cover them, while also giving them the cover they need to, say, not release a depth chart the week before a big game. Sure that sucks for fans, but holy crap did you see what coach put on Twitter last night?

Football has always had rockstar coaches that are notable for their personalities just as much as their coaching prowess, but now that's just as important a marketing strategy as selling kids on their ability to make the NFL or win championships. And while Meyer has those last two items on lockdown, maybe he should consider working harder on the first one.

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